Female Desire Pill, interview with Ellen Barnard

2/27/15 update: I interviewed Ellen Barnard about the female desire pill on 2/2/14. I’m bringing this post to the top because of the attention that “Nothing Is Wrong With Your Sex Drive” (published today in the New York Times) is getting. 

I plan to write more about this myself, and there’s a good section already in The Ultimate Guide to Sex After 50: How to Maintain – or Regain! – a Spicy, Satisfying Sex Life which I hope you’ll want to read. — Joan 

Desire in a pill?

(originally published 2/2/14)

Researchers are working on drugs to treat low desire in women. Could a desire pill really work? Do we even want it? To learn more, I interviewed one of the top sex educators, Ellen Barnard, co-owner of A Woman’s Touch Sexuality Resource Center.


JP: What’s the state of current research into a female desire drug?

EB: A variety of drugs are being investigated in clinical trials, most in phase 2 trials. No drug has been approved for the treatment of low desire for women, also known as Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder (HSDD).


JP: How are these drugs supposed to work?

EB: Some of these drugs work on brain chemicals; some are sex hormone-based (testosterone); others primarily work to increase physical arousal through an increase in blood to the clitoris. Most of the medications that are being investigated are designed to either overcome inhibition or lack of motivation, or flood the person with such strong physical sensations that she cannot ignore them easily. Or they manipulate the reward system of the brain in ways that increase the drive toward that sexual jackpot. The question is whether a drug that pushes a woman into being more interested in sex is safe, healthy, or would even be effective over the long term. Many of the drugs being investigated have a variety of side effects, and some are quite undesirable. Testosterone can cause excess hair growth, acne, lowering of the voice, and a decrease in good cholesterol, for example. Other drugs show the potential for abuse, either by the woman herself or by a partner who hopes to have a more willing lover.


JP:  Why is sexual desire so complicated for women and seemingly so easy for men?

EB: It isn’t, actually. Men have troubles with desire too, and their issues have many of the same origins as women’s do. However, we live in a culture that reinforces men for a high interest in sex, and generally does not see a high interest in sex to be a positive thing in women, unless a woman is less interested in sex than her partner, and that lower interest causes tension between them or distress in her. But even with culture condoning high desire for men, approximately 20% experience low desire. For more info, here is a good overview.


JP: How does female desire work?

EB: Desire is the cognitive recognition of sexual interest. So it’s an idea, not a physiologic process, though it results in a combination of brain and body responses. Desire may be first recognized as a thought, or it may be a thought in response to a physical feeling. Many women believe that we should feel something first, that sex starts with a twinge in the vulva or elsewhere in the body, that she interprets as sexual interest and then allows to blossom into more sexual interest and then maybe into sexual activity. If physiologic signal is not as obvious because of aging, health, or stress, she may no longer get the signal, and so she does not notice the thought.

Women who have experienced sex as painful have a feedback loop that tells them that sex will hurt, and so they shut off any thought of sex to avoid the pain. If a woman is able to get rid of the pain, she will still have to convince her subconscious that sex is safe. Once she does that, her thoughts of sexual interest often become more frequent.

The same would be true of relationship health. For a woman in a healthy, rewarding relationship, the thought of sex is a safe thought and is likely to mean that she will experience pleasure if she acts on that thought, so she pursues sexual activity. Sex requires the feeling of safety. When there is tension, distrust, fear, anger, etc., the mind does not perceive sex as safe or pleasurable, so will not express desire.

When you think about how complicated desire is for women (and men as well), you can see that it’s pretty complicated to consider a medication to address the root causes of most of these issues.


JP: What’s the bottom line?

 EB: The bottom line is that drugs do best when there is a single, knowable cause for a symptom and the drug directly addresses that cause by reducing or removing it. Sexual
desire is complicated, varies a lot from person to person, and has many moving parts. The idea that a drug could be developed to change desire is pretty far-fetched once you understand it that way, and one of our biggest fears is that you end up with a drug that has pretty wide effects and some nasty, unintended side effects.

We would prefer to address desire issues in ways that give individuals more control and more understanding of their mind and body connections so that they can do their own
problem-solving and not be reliant on a pill or a doctor. Most people can increase their experience of desire through a combination of getting healthy, having a good body image, having a safe and trusting intimate relationship, getting enough sleep, lowering stress and distractions, reducing pain, and learning how to have pleasurable sexual experiences on a regular basis.


  1. Dan on February 10, 2014 at 7:33 pm

    My low libido lady (F63) is getting tested for T. What should her "score" be? I'm (M66) shooting for 700 Free Testosterone (was 148). What would be a good score or T number for her to shoot for? Do such numbers exist? I hear guys should be 300 to 700. Women?

    Re increasing female desire/libido (other than doing the dishes), I've also, heard of
    a dab of T cream on the clitoris to enhance desire? My/our doc suggested it for her; beats the risk of unwanted lip hair etc.
    b) We've had luck with a hand suction pump for the vulva, to increase blood flow there;
    c) I've seen smaller hand vacuum clit pumps. Your thoughts on these?

    • Joan Price on February 10, 2014 at 7:47 pm

      I'm not the one to ask about what your lady's T score should be — that's her doctor. The "dab" on the clitoris is preferable to taking T systemically. I wrote about the Eros Therapy pump (http://eros-therapy.com/) in Better Than I Ever Expected, found it helpful, though I stopped using it because extended loveplay and a strong vibrator eliminated the need. How small is the clit pump? Realize that the nub that protrudes is just one part of the clitoris, and bringing blood flow to the whole vulva can be more effective than just the clitoral nub. But it's all personal — what does SHE prefer? Try exercising before sex — gets the blood flow going to the genitals, not just to the heart and muscles.

    • Dan on February 12, 2014 at 12:24 am

      So YOU are the one that turned me/us on to the pump? Thanks! Loved you book. Yes, great toy, sold as fetish gear but not sure why. Getting that was part of what got her motivated to get tested for T I think. It is a bit frightful how the ENTIRE vulva grows to fill that transparent cup. But fun.
      Thanks for doing the research.

  2. Leesa Dasy on February 5, 2014 at 7:08 am

    I love this blog post. I never recommend any one for pills because these have bad effect on body.

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